Stuff and fings
6 WRITING TIPS FROM JOHN STEINBECK
- Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
- Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
- Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
- If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
- Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
- If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
"If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story."
Great tips, of course, from Steinbeck. However, as I was just discussing with someone today, I hate the idea of there being “magic” in story writing, this discussion being brought on by working on a TV show mythologysing 60s and 70s music (Although the mythologising of any musician will generally wind me up.)
I fancy myself as a writer, hopefully a professional writer in the future. But one notion that’s always wound me up is the Romantic idea of the writer or artist being some kind of higher position, a special little snowflake, to borrow a trope term.
Writing and creation isn’t any more special than breathing. Humanity wrote its way out of confusion before it understood why the sun would rise and set, creating myths and Gods and monsters. We used stories to explain what we didn’t understand, as a way of coping with it. Before we knew why the sun would rise there was a genuine worry that one day it wouldn’t, So we came up with stories, Apollo or Ra, name your mythology. We sing because we can. We paint and draw because we can. Because it’s communication of what’s inside, not what’s beyond.
Creation, in any form, has no magic. Magic comes from somewhere outside the known. Magic is indefinable, the very opposite of creation. Magic is that something extra. Creation is that something essential.
I disagree, sorry. Creation IS magic. Tapping into the flow IS magic. It’s not some supernatural thing. It’s that profoundly strange and unusual thing that results when a bunch of words or images suddenly transform in your head into another world, one where nothing breaks you out of the illusion. It’s not an elitist thing, but it is hard. I think that’s what Steinbeck is getting at. It’s not that writers or artists are these “special” people - it’s that working hard at your craft results in a better ability to shape illusion. Magicians are born, they are created - in fact, they create themselves. Much like artists. There’s a vast difference between a book that’s sublime and one that’s written by a hack - in that difference, I think there IS magic. Part of the problem here is the common understanding of what magic actually means…
The Loch was created by Mitch Alexander, originally for a fishing-based game jam back in 2013. Afterwards, he continued to work on it for a few months, attempting to flesh out his vision further with some new characters, events, and such. More can be read on his blog post or check out the developer diary he kept. In fact, he added so much to the game that RPG Maker VX Lite's limitations kicked in and prevented him from doing more with it.
I NEED TO WATCH THIS RIGHT NOW.
"Trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune.
"In 1973, film producer Arthur P. Jacobs optioned the film rights to Dune but died before a film could be developed. The option was then taken over two years later by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, who proceeded to approach, among others, Peter Gabriel, the prog rock groups Pink Floyd and Magma for some of the music, artists H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud for set and character design, Dan O’Bannon for special effects, and Salvador Dalí, Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson and others for the cast…"
We’re living in a very interesting time just now, culturally speaking. The massive argument raging in comics and video games around representation of the audience and diversity of characters and creators is an exciting microcosm of a larger debate.
I’ve been discussing it a lot lately, among other fans, creators and folk from outside of these communities, and for a long time, I looked upon these debates as an indication that the comics and video games industries were dinosaurs - out of touch and behind the times. It felt at first like this was a conversation many people had already had in other avenues of life, and particularly in other entertainment media.
The idea that both industries seemed unaware of their audience’ demographics and still created work based around one stereotypical idea of who was consuming the work seemed so outmoded in a time when marketing and audience development had become incredibly sophisticated and, even if the motivation was deeply unsound, producers of media seemed to be hyper-aware of who it was they were supposed to be engaging with.
I now think that assessment was deeply wrong.
As the conversation has continued around representation of women in games, women and non-white creators being promoted instead of shut out, LGBT characters being represented in comic books, and diversity meaning something more important that a tokenistic approach to representing race in fiction, I’ve come to feel like this is the primary battleground in media for these subjects.
I’m going to talk about comics because 1) it’s the industry I work in, and 2) although the debate is raging in videogame culture too, the differences in terms of delivery methods, production times etc are too great between the two media to lump them both together. Video game culture and its ongoing debate is a separate thing, and I don’t want to do it an injustice by including it like I actually know what I’m talking about.
So, comics then.
For decades, the comic book industry has been weighed down by a stereotyped audience member - the 18-35(ish) white male. Not only that, but for the outside world, that stereotype has been a pejorative - those males are freaks - lone geeks, neck beards, virgins, social outcasts, who get their vicarious kicks from reading comics with beautiful women in them because they’ll never approach a real woman.
That stereotype isn’t true of the comic book reading audience. But the problem is, it’s based on a very real phenomenon. When comic books were first being mass-produced in the States, they were primarily for kids. As each generation of readership grew up, that audience changed, meaning that more and more adults were still buying comics because they’d grown up with them. But for decades, that was a fairly niche market.
In the 90s though, comics exploded into the mainstream, with single issues selling close to the million mark, creators being lauded like rock stars (starring in Levi’s commercials) and with comic book films becoming massive successes (arguably due to Burton’s ‘Batman’ movie of ‘88).
Suddenly comics were big news. Their reach extended out beyond the core audience, and they picked up a whole new, and larger, generation of readers, and this time a primarily teenage audience.
However, the speculator and collector driven financial bubble of the 90s imploded very quickly, and the fall out was wide-ranging, with Marvel filing for bankruptcy, and comic producers everywhere struggling.
The promise of comics reaching out into the mainstream was lost, amid a furious attempt to keep the speculation going, by releasing increasingly less valuable “limited edition” hologram and die cut covers, multiple variants etc. And ultimately, the big two (Marvel and DC) attempted to stave off their inevitable decline, not by trying to reach outside of their existing audience, but by finding ways to milk that audience dry.
This was the real birth of the “event” - if you were an X-Men reader, for instance, an event would appear that would force you to buy multiple monthly comics within the “X-family” in order to read the full story. Potentially annoying and wallet-draining, but also not too much of a burden if you were already a fan of some of the books.
When those events went “line-wide”, when they crossed multiple “families” and teams of comics, and you were suddenly buying 20 comics a month just to keep up with one story, it was obvious that the publishers weren’t interested in new readerships - the dense and inter-connected nature of the stories were off-putting to new fans who were already struggling with decades-old continuity.
These events were designed instead to make an existing readership reach further into their pockets to spend more. Side- and up-selling are the terms used in other retail business industries. Maximise spending. Increase audience participation. All very Nineties.
And the single demographic that could afford to keep up with these changes to the landscape of comics more easily than any other was, broadly, young white men with disposable income.
A self-perpetuating myth began that tied so neatly into the rest of society’s view of comic fandom that it was hard not to believe that the only folk reading comics were young, white, straight, male geeks.
But that was never the case. There was always a diverse readership, and despite the ever-complexifying topology of the comics landscape, women, black men, LGBT people of all genders, were still finding a lot to interest them - perhaps particularly in those “off-universe” lines like Vertigo, which was producing during this time wacky, weird, dark and adult work that appealed more to sub-culture than it did to the mainstream (Neil Gaiman’s ‘Death’ is a perfect hologram of this side of the comic book world - adored by women, worshipped by freaks, raved about by Tori Amos, among others).
Still, the main market for comic books was superheroes.
And because the publishers were intent on maximising and capitalising on one demographic, those non-white, non-male, non-cis-het readers had to wade through an ocean of giant guns, breasts, and poorly drawn (both literally and figuratively) minority characters.
That the portion of the audience who weren’t in that prime demographic even stayed with the big two is testament to the power of those books, those characters, and mainly, those ideas, regardless of the current quality.
Women and gay men in particular seemed drawn to the X-Men books. As a gay teenager, I know that I found something particularly resonant in the idea of these outcasts and freaks being empowered by the same twist of fate that othered them. So even when the stories went from the sublime to the ridiculous, I stayed with it, always hoping for that old glory to return (and the case of New X-Men, being rewarded in a way I could never have imagined - but it’s indicative of Marvel at the time that the run that most seemed to understand that freakish sub-culture aspect of the X-teams was also one of the hardest, and most alien to the top brass, and all the changes implemented during Grant Morrison’s run were effectively ret-conned out of existence, forcing the books back into a typically-90s, big battles and in-fighting state that has continued by and large to this day, with some exceptions).
But the publishers weren’t opening their eyes up to those demographics. They believed the myth about who was buying their books - and because that readership was very exclusive they saw that represented at conventions and signings, where women particularly often felt uncomfortable. If they weren’t there, I suppose the idea went, they didn’t exist.
Which brings us around to representation. I’m honestly not sure what the tipping point was, but sometime in the last five years particularly, female audiences started to push back. A new generation of fans was becoming particularly vocal about their love of comics, and was not afraid of showing it. One particular aspect, but by no means the only one, where females were representing’ was cosplay. Women all over the world were being empowered by dressing up as their favourite characters at conventions, and in a matter of a couple of years, cosplay went from a kind of weird, niche thing to a massive cultural phenomenon.
Unfortunately, with this new found visibility came a backlash from the core readership. Women were finding themselves on the receiving end of abuse from a (let’s be clear about this) vocal minority of fans who wanted the clubhouse to remain distinctly “Boy’s Only”. They were criticised for being fake “geek girls”, of only liking the dress-up aspect, and were faced with a torrent of misogynistic abuse ranging from over-sexualisation and inappropriate (at least) touching to racism when black women dressed up as white characters, and fat-shaming when women who didn’t fit the illusive and false comic book ideal also felt empowered to dress up as their idols.
It’s worth stopping here for a moment to recognise something - this backlash is really what prompted this vociferous debate. Women were becoming more visible in comics, and would have happily continued to do so, no doubt encouraging the community and the publishers to evolve over time. But the backlash faced in their emergence brought an urgency and stridency to the debate.
To sum it up, it made folk start to realise that things weren’t good enough. Why were female readers (and black readers, and LGBT readers) facing this kind of exclusion and abuse when they’d been happily enjoying the books for so long? It was because the lack of visibility in the books themselves meant that the core, or “Prime”, readership wasn’t ready to accept that the fanbase extended beyond their limited understanding of it.
When readers see white, straight men take centre stage, and when other characters only exist as props for them (the girlfriend, the sassy black guy, the tragic gay plot device), it’s easy to understand why they would be shocked to realise that not everyone reading the books is like them. What’s harder to understand is why a certain section of that fanbase would be so exclusive and abusive in their reaction to having that understanding overturned.
Regardless, it was time for the non-normative audience to speak up.
As I said at the beginning, when this dialogue started, it felt like the comic book industry was only just starting to play catch up - that it had kind of been left behind in its narrow understanding of its own audience and its over-willingness to cater for that group in its creative output.
But that was actually a privileged and myopic misunderstanding on my part. I was assuming that this debate had already happened in other arenas, and was in effect being won. That’s absolutely not the case - representation in film and TV is still prehistoric in many cases, and that’s to say nothing of representation in politics, law and wider society.
And there’s something else about the comic book industry that makes it a unique laboratory for watching this argument play out - it’s incredible ability to respond.
Unlike movies and TV, which both have long production schedules and massive creative teams, to say nothing of the often excessive interference by the studios and agents, the comic book industry operates on a mass-market scale, but with an astonishingly quick turnaround.
Each line of comics is produced on an at-least monthly schedule, and in perpetuity, with no seasonal breaks. Writers and artists come and go easily, and storylines often take dramatic, acrobatic u-turns. We may feel as though characters are unchanged over decades, partly because the core idea of them usually stays the same, and partly because of the many changes they undergo. In reality though, these characters are fluid and malleable.
The same is particularly true of team books, where new characters are always being introduced. That being the case, there’s really little solid argument for under-representation.
The really interesting thing about comics though is that despite the big two being owned by massive conglomerates, the distance between editor, creator and reader is very slim. Most creators currently engage directly with fans, through social media etc. Most editors are actively interested in hearing what the readership says about their books, since it’s a very cut-throat market with regards to sales.
It’s actually in the best interests of editors and creators to be listening when these cultural debates start happening. It doesn’t take very long now for the accusation of mis- or under-representation to stain a book or creator. In an increasingly-connected world, people are talking, and publicly. It’s no longer okay to write female characters as props for the males, because the female audience isn’t going to take it any more.
It’s not okay for the massive amount of black readers out there to be scouring the shelves for positive representation among the books they’ve grown up reading.
It’s not okay for gay, bisexual or trans people to see themselves reflected negatively or not at all.
And they’re discussing it - openly and loudly.
Even when publishers make moves to change things, they better be sure they’re not tokenistic sops - the readership will speak.
But the really fantastic thing about comics is that because the pipeline of delivery is so relatively short, changes can be made really quickly. Since this massive debate started, some incredible changes have already been made. Marvel particularly seems to have learned from the mistakes DC has made in the New 52, and has rolled out a number of launches and relaunches that seem reflective of a desire to reach that larger, broader audience in a way that doesn’t seem entirely tokenistic.
Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Young Avengers, Uncanny X-Force - women leads, black characters in prime team positions, all-female teams, gay characters who are treated sympathetically, whose sexuality is not the main plot.
DC has in turn learned from Marvel’s approach, including trans-characters, gay characters, re-establishing black leads etc. Both companies have quite some way to go - representation among creators is still seen as being incredible unequal, for instance - but changes are being made, and quickly.
The comic book industry is currently a lab where we can see these changes happen with a very fast turnaround, and that means we can also see the reaction. Backlash and reactionary arguments about political correctness, laughable commentary about increasing under-representation of white males in favour of other groups, these are still happening. But when we see the publishers themselves start to diversify, when we see an increasingly broad audience buying these books, when the arguments become more refined, and focus on quality of representation, and the world doesn’t end, or the comic book industry crumble, then those arguments seem increasingly out-dated and pathetic.
In a fairly new medium, with the ability to produce works of incredible fantastical scope, in which we can write and read about gods, aliens, and everything in-between, but not see ourselves represented, is no longer tenable. The fact that the industry is listening, that changes are being made, that they dialogue even exists and seems to be a two-way street - these factors make me think that the comic book world is not way behind the times, but is potentially at the forefront of a radical shift in terms of media production.
With comic book movies increasingly saturating the cinemas, that argument is already shifting from the books to the adaptations - where is our Wonder Woman movie? Why doesn’t Black Widow have a solo outing? When will we get our first gay superhero on the screen? Is it even plausible in this day and age that we have all white superhero teams in the cinema, and if the source material is guilty of under-representation, how do we get around that?
That dialogue will feed into popular culture at large. It will feed back into the books and out again, will spill over from the films into TV, and beyond the world of comics into other genre production, sci fi, horror (look at the dialogue surrounding American Horror Story: Coven, and its depiction of race and voodoo etc).
And from there, in a world increasingly driven by media and entertainment, where the fortunes of the rich are made in audience numbers, in marketing, in advertising, one can only hope that it will reach out even further, into the broader media arena.
It may seem to some the wrong place for this debate - why are we talking about comics and sci-fi when women and POC are under-represented in the boardroom, or the debating chamber?
But when people start to see themselves represented in fiction, on the screen, in the books they read, they can become empowered to say, I am part of this world, I belong in it, and in accepting that, I can make changes. The silencing aspect of not seeing yourself represented, of assuming that you are somehow not fit to take part in these vast, epic stories and adventures, is incredibly under-appreciated. The connected nature of the world means that everything is under the microscope, and people are talking, and they’re basically just not taking it any more.
In my opinion, watch what happens in the comic book world - to do so is to look into a crystal ball.